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Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Bush Successor Seen Staying the Course

Bush Successor Seen Staying the Course

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Just one day after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared George W. Bush's path to the presidency—effectively ensuring Rick Perry's promotion to governor of Texas—the then-lieutenant governor was in Dallas naming education as his "premier" concern.

And well he might. As much for political reasons as those related to policy, it made sense for Mr. Perry to proclaim that education's spot atop the state agenda would remain secure.

After all, a focus on education had arguably helped propel Mr. Perry's predecessor to the White House. Before that, it had served Mr. Bush well as governor, since education was conducive to the kind of bipartisan cooperation that the president-elect has now famously vowed to bring to Washington.

Improving education is a popular cause, too, with Texas business leaders. And best of all, the state's efforts to improve its schools look as if they might well be paying off. Even before Mr. Bush's presidential bid, the gains were attracting national attention in education circles.

So Mr. Perry, a Republican who was sworn in as governor Dec. 21, might be tossing away a valuable political card if he were to give school issues short shrift. Still, no one is predicting that precollegiate education will soon become the new governor's signature issue, as it became Mr. Bush's.

For one thing, circumstances are against it. With the last legislature having completed an overhaul of the K-12 accountability system in 1999, major changes to the Texas school improvement framework don't seem to be on the horizon. The legislature is expected to be preoccupied with redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines for a good part of its 140-day biennial session, which starts this week.

For another thing, Gov. Perry, 50, a former state representative who served seven years as the state agricultural commissioner, hasn't had much occasion to grapple with K-12 issues. He is more associated in people's minds with higher education, thanks to a commission he appointed while lieutenant governor to study Texas colleges and universities.

"I think he will try to leave his mark in an area outside of K-12," ventured William J. Miller, a consultant who works for Texas politicians of both major political parties, citing higher education or perhaps health care as two such areas.

An early sign of Mr. Perry's interest in higher education came last week when he endorsed the proposals unveiled by the commission he had appointed, including one that would add more than $210 million to the next state budget to help send more low- and middle-income students to college. Mr. Perry also embraced the commission's call for all high school students to take the courses they need to prepare them for college.

Continuity Expected

Educators and other observers do expect Gov. Perry, who will finish out the remaining two years of Mr. Bush's term, to support the state's existing school improvement efforts. The high-profile system of standards, tests, and accountability that Texas started building in the mid-1980s has been endorsed, more or less, by the state's past four governors, Democratic and Republican alike, including Mr. Bush.

Many seem to believe that Mr. Perry's most important contribution to state education policy will be to keep it on course, especially as new and more demanding tests tied to student promotion and graduation are phased in over the next few years. Mr. Perry has already declared his interest in running for a full term as governor in 2002, which would put some of those deadlines within his next term, should he win.

"What's really important, and what's happened over multiple governors, is a continuation of the direction we are headed," said Brad Duggan, the executive director of Just for the Kids, an Austin-based school improvement group.

In the 1999 session, Mr. Perry, who as lieutenant governor also held the powerful post of Senate president, successfully promoted legislation to put master reading teachers in schools. That was part of a larger push from the governor for reading improvement geared to a new requirement that, beginning in 2003, 3rd graders pass the state reading test to win promotion to 4th grade.

Mr. Perry was in favor, too, of overhauling the state exams, which many Texas educators believe will be effective in raising achievement only if schools have time to meet the new challenges without being handed more.

"The education reforms adopted in Texas have been adopted wisely because they have all allowed substantial lead times, " said Sen. Teel Bivins, a Republican who chairs the Senate's education committee. "I anticipate we will continue on that track under Governor Perry."

To make the most of the lead time, educators and others say, the state needs a new push in mathematics. To that end, the Texas Education Agency is asking for $28 million over the next two fiscal years to prepare teachers in grades 4-8 to provide better math teaching.

State Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson, who was appointed by Mr. Bush, says he expects Mr. Perry to back the mathematics program.

"I think he is very supportive of the things we have in place—our accountability system, our assessments, our focus on reading, and also supportive of a renewed focus on math," Mr. Nelson said. "I think it's going to be a very smooth transition."

But while state education officials peer into the future and are reassured, teachers' union leaders are a touch concerned.

They worry about Mr. Perry's relatively outspoken support for private school vouchers and the campaign dollars that teacher advocates say have flowed to him because of it.

On the other hand, Mr. Perry's views on vouchers might not make much difference. After all, despite support from Mr. Bush, pro-voucher forces were unable to get a bill for a pilot voucher program to a vote in the Texas Senate in 1999.

'Blank Slate'

Lawmakers are also waiting to see how the new governor will shape up. Not widely known among most Texans, Mr. Perry, a former cotton farmer from the western part of the state has a reputation among legislators as a fiscal conservative and something of a partisan fighter.

Since switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 1988, prior to his run for agriculture commissioner, he has courted social and religious conservatives. And state Democratic leaders accused him of attacking incumbents of their party in the recent elections, a move that some saw as a violation of the unusually bipartisan spirit of the Texas legislature.

But in his weeks as heir apparent since the presidential election and now as governor, Mr. Perry has been perceived as embracing not only the substance of the Bush governorship but also its collegial style.

Even legislators who have worked with him extensively aren't prepared to predict what kind of new relationship Mr. Perry will forge with them. Mr. Bivins, who heads the education committee in the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat edge, is optimistic, saying that Mr. Perry grew into his Senate job. "He gained the respect of state senators, and that's what leadership is about," he said.

The chairman of the House education committee, where Democrats hold a slim majority, is more guarded. "I don't know yet about Perry," said Democratic Rep. Paul Sadler. "He's done things that Bush never did."

Observers beyond the legislature are no less uncertain. "To a remarkable degree," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, "he's a blank slate."

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 8

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